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The Impacts of an Opportunity

In his nation of 23 million people, Felix Amankona-Diawuo (Ghana, UWC-USA, Carleton College) was one of just three high school students in Ghana chosen in 2003 for a United World College scholarship.

He knows how much that meant.

In Ghana, both of Felix’s parents are of royal lineage — his father is a chief — but they have long worked in the public sector, earning very modest salaries. There was no way his family could have sent Felix to college in the United States.

Today he’s a graduate student at Northwestern University, working in a research group that’s exploring fundamental dynamics with applications in solar energy, nanochemistry, and elsewhere. As a Davis UWC Scholar at Carleton, Felix did as much as he could — “I was pretty active on campus,” he said — to contribute a broader, more global perspective to campus discussions. He also served as an international-student leader, started a table-tennis team, played African drums on campus, and did research in theoretical chemistry.

All of this began with a chance. When he was 16, Felix was one of 11 top students interviewed by Ghana’s national selection committee for those three UWC scholarships.

“Coming to the UWC was a very great opportunity for me,” Felix said. “The Ghanaian education system is pretty narrow — basically, you are restricted to your field. I did science, and if you’re a science student, there’s no sports, no community service.

“The other thing is that Ghana is pretty homogenous. The UWC was just, like, ‘Wow.’ Meeting people from pretty much everywhere, and trying to understand things I had only seen in the movies — that cultural interaction changed my outlook, to a broader look at people from all over the world.

“At Carleton, they also really push for a global outlook,” he continued. “They are interested in environmental issues and cultural understanding. We always had these cultural evenings, like ‘chili night’ — later, they made that ‘chili and curry night.’ I always made it a point to go to those things. Most of the students were American, so some of us international students were always making an effort to make the discussions broader.

“When it came to discussions about race, and the complicated U.S. race relations, some of us from outside brought a fresh outlook, a fresh viewpoint. My education at UWC had dealt with some of these things already — so we could go beyond some of these issues, and look for new understanding.”

These days, as he looks toward his own future, Felix remembers the chance he received. He plans to earn a PhD, to do postdoctoral work, then eventually to return home.

He’d like to continue his academic work, and to do research in Ghana — “but not just research in my field.

“I want to promote a society of research. In Ghana, science is very bookish; there is no focus on research. I want to push for that — to be a voice in the academic circles for us to look at some of our own local problems, study them, and look for solutions.”

All this because, just a few years ago, one bright teenager was given a chance.